How To Get An ESA Letter?
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Roughly 1 in 5 adults in the United States struggle with some form of mental illness. These conditions can vary in degree of severity. For some, symptoms are mild and manageable but, for others, they result in a significant impairment of function and ability to complete daily tasks.
It’s no secret that pets are an excellent source of companionship, but animals can provide support for mental and emotional issues as well. You’re undoubtedly familiar with therapy dogs and other forms of pet therapy, but if you struggle with mental health issues you might qualify for an emotional support animal (ESA) of your own.
Before you fork over any money to an online registry, take a moment to learn the proper way to get an ESA letter that is both legal and valid.
What Is An Emotional Support Animal?
An emotional support animal is simply an animal companion that provides benefits for an individual struggling with some kind of disability. By providing companionship and other modes of support, the animal helps alleviate certain symptoms or aspects of the disability. Emotional support animals are commonly assigned to individuals suffering from emotional/mental issues like anxiety, depression, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As you might imagine, dogs are the most common emotional support animal, but cats are popular as well. Some of the more surprising animals that have been used for emotional support include mini horses, potbellied pigs, or even peacocks. There are no restrictions on breed or species for emotional support animals, but most are common pets, not exotic animals or barnyard creatures.
Emotional Support VS. Service Animals
It’s important to note that emotional support animals are different from service animals. A service animal is trained to perform specific tasks while an emotional support animal doesn’t require any formal training. They simply provide comfort and support through companionship.
Service animals must complete a formal training program to provide specific benefits. For example, guide dogs are trained to help a blind person navigate and perform daily tasks. Service dogs might be trained to retrieve items, to carry things, or to alert others if the person requires help.
One way in which emotional support and service animals are similar is in that you can obtain a letter from a certified healthcare provider which may enable you to bypass certain laws and restrictions. Most airlines, for example, allow emotional support animals with proper documentations. You may also be able to get around restrictive pet policies for housing, mass transportation, and other areas.
The Fair Housing Act
The Federal Fair Housing Act requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for individuals who require an assistance animal in their home.
There are two conditions under which housing providers are required to make an exception to “not pets” policies:
- The individual has some kind of disability that significantly limits one or more major life activities.
- The animal must provide some kind of relief or assistance related to the identified disability.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn’t specify the disabilities that qualify for an exception, but they do describe the functions of an emotional support animal to include “providing emotional support to persons with disabilities who have a disability-related need for support.”
In order to qualify for an exception, an individual must obtain a verification letter from a mental health professional stating their need for an emotional support animal. Some landlords may also require a verification form from a physician or therapist confirming the disability.
Who Can Benefit From One?
Legislation regarding emotional support animals is still fairly new, as is research regarding their benefit. Generally speaking, anyone can benefit from an emotional support animal who struggles with mental or emotional difficulty or disability. Again, emotional support animals are recommended for individuals who can benefit from companionship and support – they do not perform specific supportive tasks.
Here are some of the benefits an emotional support animal might provide:
- Reduced anxiety
- Trauma support
- Relief from loneliness
- Improved physical health
- Sense of purpose
- Reciprocal care
Research regarding the benefits of emotional support animals is ongoing, but there are studies that show the benefits of pet ownership in a variety of ways. For example, simply petting an animal can induce a relaxation response in the central nervous system and could help elevate mood.
Numerous studies have shown pet ownership and emotional support animals to help improve certain aspects of physical health such as lowering blood pressure or decreasing respiration rates. Having an animal companion can help patients deal with loneliness and the act of caring for a pet can give patients a sense of purpose as well as unconditional love.
How To Get An ESA Letter?
With the rise in popularity of emotional support animals, there are many websites out there that you can pay to add your pet’s name to a database – they may even issue a letter or an ID card. Before you pay for any of these services, however, you should know that an ESA letter is only valid when issued by a licensed healthcare professional.
Here are the steps to get an ESA letter:
- Talk to your physician to obtain a diagnosis for the mental or emotional disability you are suffering from.
- Have the diagnosis confirmed by a qualified mental health professional, if applicable.
- Start or continue treatment with the mental health professional you intend to issue the letter.
- Request your physician or mental health professional issue a letter or certificate (ideally on letterhead of the issuing physician).
If you don’t have a regular doctor, you may be able to get your ESA letter online. Just remember that you need to actually be receiving treatment in order for your letter to be valid – you can’t just purchase a letter online without speaking to a licensed therapist. Fortunately, online therapy has become readily available amidst the current pandemic.
Remember as well that airlines and other authorities are not obligated to accept ESA letters more than one year old. If you are undergoing treatment for the disability for which you requested an emotional support animal, have your therapist or physician issue an updated ESA letter once a year.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you qualify for an emotional support animal?
In order to qualify for an emotional support animal (ESA) in the United States, you must have an emotional or mental disability certified by a licensed mental health care professional (such as a psychiatrist or psychologist).
Can I get an emotional support animal for anxiety?
Yes. Emotional support animals provide comfort and support for a wide range of mental and emotional issues including anxiety.
How much does an ESA letter cost?
It depends. Be wary of online services that advertise emotional support animal letters or entry into a national database. All you really need is a certification and letter from your physician or a licensed healthcare professional – you do not necessarily need to pay a service separately for a letter. In fact, letters issued by these services may not be valid.
Do emotional support animals fly free?
Having a valid ESA letter may enable you to bring your emotional support letter in the plane cabin with you, but different airlines have different policies regarding fees. American Airlines, for example, allows fully trained service animals to fly in the cabin at no charge but emotional support animals may travel as pets with applicable fees.